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An Interview with Mark Hooker, Author of Freedom of Education

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You can’t tell a book by its cover, or even the title on the cover, in this case. At first blush there’s not much that American education in the 21st century has in common with 19th century Holland. A slightly closer look should open lots of eyes and minds, and perhaps save a country the anguish and ignominy of repeating history.

Q: Today we are talking to Mark T. Hooker, the author of The History of Holland, a textbook for introductory courses on Dutch history, who has just released a Kindle edition of his supplemental book on the history of the nineteenth-century Dutch political battle to set education funding policy. Its title is Freedom of Education: The Dutch Political Battle for State Funding of all Schools both Public and Private (1801-1920).

That title is quite a mouthful, but it seems to me that its essence is the main title: Freedom of Education. That is not part of the list of classic freedoms that Americans are most familiar with. How does it fit in with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms:

1. Freedom of Speech
2. Freedom of Religion
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear?

A: Freedom of Education is actually an extension of Roosevelt’s second Freedom: Freedom of Religion. The Dutch chose the term “Freedom of Education,” because they were fighting the State’s monopoly on education, and the vocabulary of this struggle was based on the analogy of the fight against a State monopoly on religion, which gave us “Freedom of Religion.” The public wanted the freedom to set up and run their own schools, free of government requirements that the curriculum be secular.

Q: There have been a number of politicians calling for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education. Would Dutch-style Freedom of Education work for them, or against them?

A: It would work against them. While the Dutch are free to pray in school and have Christmas pageants, students have to pass a standard, nationwide test to graduate, and that is prepared by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The Ministry’s test, however, can only test the basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. It is not, however, the only test that the students have to pass. Each school prepares its own “final,” and the average of the school’s test and the national test has to be passing for the student to graduate. So there would be a larger role for the Department of Education under Dutch-style Freedom of Education.

Q: How is “Freedom of Education” different from the “Right to Education” included in such international conventions as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

A: It is not very different at all. Article 2 of the Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms begins by saying: “No person shall be denied the right to education,” but then it continues: “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” It is the second part of Article 2 that coincides with the Dutch concept of “Freedom of Education.”

Article 13 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides parents the freedom to choose schools for their children other than those established by the public authorities as a recognition of the freedom of parents (or guardians) to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. Article 26 (3) of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that parents “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” This guarantee is so important to the Dutch that they enshrined it in Article 23 of their constitution, but to get to that point it took them over a hundred years of political wrangling about who had the right to establish and run schools, and how these schools would be paid for. This political battle is known in Holland as the Schoolstrijd, “The Battle for the Schools.”

Q: But what is so different between the Dutch system and the American system? Churches have the right to establish and operate schools with a religious-based curriculum, and parents can send their children to these schools if they want to.

A: The Dutch came to realize that Freedom of Education was more than just the right to establish religious schools and send your children to them. In their view, a tuition-free secular public school system forced parents into making a choice between their religious conscience and their pocketbook. In Holland during the Schoolstrijd, if parents wanted their children to have a religious-based education, then they had to pay for it, but if they sent their children to a secular public school, their education was free of charge. The Dutch recognized that not everyone is financially able to pay for the kind of education they would wish for their children, so this financial consideration forces them to send their children to a secular school, even though they would prefer otherwise. The Dutch solution was the Separation of School and State, which they achieved by equally funding all schools both public and private. It is an elegant solution that deftly preserves the separation of Church and State that is mandated by the Dutch Constitution.

This quote from one of the legal minds at the center of the Dutch debate sums up the situation nicely. Professor T.J. Buys said, “I believe that an unlimited right to found Private Schools is not enough to establish the Freedom of Education; that the artificial protection of State Schools — be it by extending tuition-free education to other than the needy, or through the provision of other advantages — makes Private Schools unviable and the granting of this right illusionary.”

In other words, by only paying for secular schools, the government has created a de facto bar to true Freedom of Education.

In Holland, secular Public Schools are tuition-free, but so are religious Bijzonder (Private) Schools. Parents have the Freedom of Choice to send their children to any school they wish, be it Catholic, Protestant, secular, Muslim, anthroposophic, or Montessori. This is the Dutch solution to the quandary of the Schoolstrijd. The Dutch equated Freedom of Education with Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Religion, and decided that the solution was not just the separation of Church and State, but also the separation of School and State. The same quandary exists in America. It just has not been expressed in those terms.

Q: What prompted you to write this book?

A: What struck me as I was reading up on the history of the Dutch Schoolstrijd for my textbook, was how much the Dutch nineteenth-century debates sounded like the discussions about school vouchers and school choice that I have been hearing here. Sometimes I felt as if I were to translate some of the Dutch rhetoric into English, and change the names of the Dutch politicians to the names of American politicians and the Dutch place names to American place names, that it would seem right at home in an American newspaper today.

To ignore history is to be doomed to repeat it. The lessons of the Dutch Schoolstrijd should be of interest to those on both sides of the school voucher debate, as they may help us avoid the mistakes that the Dutch made, and keep us from reinventing the wheel.

Histories of the Schoolstrijd, however, are only available in Dutch. The names of Dutch politicians whose speeches were translated for this volume are household names in Holland, but nobody has heard of them here. Streets and schools are named after them in Holland. The Dutch already had this debate, and we should be able to learn from it. I, therefore, decided to write this book to make an English-language overview of the history of the Schoolstrijd available to the American public. The lessons of the history of the Dutch Schoolstrijd point to alternative solutions to the issue of school vouchers and school choice that could be applied to the American debate.

The Dutch have always been at the forefront of religious tolerance. The Dutch offered sanctuary to those who left England in 1607-08 in quest of religious freedom. These people became the Pilgrims who sailed to America in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. When they moved to Leiden, they were not called “Pilgrims,” but rather “Separatists,” because they had other ideas about religion than those advanced by either the Church of England or the Calvinist “puritans.” If it wasn’t for the Dutch giving the Pilgrims a place to stay before they sailed for Plymouth, we probably wouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.

It seemed to me that there might still be a thing or two about Freedom of Religion that we could learn from the Dutch.

Q: These days in America, giving parents the absolute freedom of choice as to which school to send their children to would seem to impact upon more than just Freedom of Religion. Is the decision of which school to send your child to still strictly a question of religion in Holland?

A: I know of a Muslim family here in the States that sends its children to a Private Catholic School because they perceived the quality of education to be higher there than in the local Public Schools. And the quality of education is a consideration that seems to be more important to parents in Holland today as well. Better schools get more students, which translates to more money, because School funding is based on a formula that includes a teacher to student ratio.

Bad schools attract fewer students, and lose funding.

Equal funding for all schools both public and private has, however, had an unanticipated effect. Because enrollment figures are so important, many Private Schools have reduced the accent on their “special” religious nature in the face of a growing Secularism in Holland in an effort to recruit more students and keep their funding up. In other words, tuition-free parochial education does not mean an end to secular education, nor is it a “silver bullet” that will restore religious values to the nation’s children. Equal funding has unleashed the forces of the marketplace on the school system for good or bad.

In other words, Freedom of Education is about the state monopoly on tuition-free education, and the right of parents to choose which school they want their children to attend. The United States is, in essence, not adhering to the international conventions on the Right of Education, and we need to consider if that is the proper thing to do.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to join us today.

A: Thank you for inviting me.

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About Lou Novacheck